Movies for Teaching a High School Film Course

by tim_marklevitz | created - 27 Dec 2015 | updated - 7 months ago | Public

I have been teaching high school film and digital production courses since 2013. This is a list of films that I show in class to help introduce students to the various units and concepts we are discussing. The films are arranged in order by which they are screened. During the year, we discuss narrative storytelling, mise en scene, cinematography, editing, sound, documentaries, and animation. I screen two films every six weeks. I introduce each film with a short presentation, detailing the film's history and cultural significance, and explaining how the film relates to the current unit. Each film is followed by a brief discussion and quiz. The textbook that I use is The Film Experience (Third Edition) by Timothy Corrigan and Patricia White.

My list is constantly evolving, so please let me know if there are any essential films that I missed.

All students are required to have signed permission slips in order to watch an R-rated film. Parents/Guardians are provided with permission slips clearly identifying which films are rated-R, along with a brief explanation detailing the mature content depicted in each film and a link to the IMDb "Parent's Guide".

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1. Back to the Future (1985)

PG | 116 min | Adventure, Comedy, Sci-Fi

87 Metascore

Marty McFly, a 17-year-old high school student, is accidentally sent thirty years into the past in a time-traveling DeLorean invented by his close friend, the maverick scientist Doc Brown.

Director: Robert Zemeckis | Stars: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover

Votes: 908,675 | Gross: $210.61M

'Back to the Future' opens our unit on narrative storytelling and I use the film to introduce students to the 'heroes journey'.

2. Rashômon (1950)

Not Rated | 88 min | Crime, Drama, Mystery

The rape of a bride and the murder of her samurai husband are recalled from the perspectives of a bandit, the bride, the samurai's ghost and a woodcutter.

Director: Akira Kurosawa | Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Machiko Kyô, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura

Votes: 130,446 | Gross: $0.10M

'Rashomon' continues our unit on narrative storytelling, introducing students to the nonlinear style and the use of multiple subjective narrators.

3. Citizen Kane (1941)

PG | 119 min | Drama, Mystery

100 Metascore

Following the death of a publishing tycoon, news reporters scramble to discover the meaning of his final utterance.

Director: Orson Welles | Stars: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Agnes Moorehead

Votes: 356,079 | Gross: $1.59M

'Citizen Kane' could be used for any unit, but I use it for teaching students about mise en scene since it's sort of a "catch-all" term. I will know I am an accomplished film teacher once I can convince my students that 'Citizen Kane' is worth their time. I'm not there yet.

4. Vertigo (1958)

PG | 128 min | Mystery, Romance, Thriller

100 Metascore

A former police detective juggles wrestling with his personal demons and becoming obsessed with a hauntingly beautiful woman.

Director: Alfred Hitchcock | Stars: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore

Votes: 312,103 | Gross: $3.20M

'Vertigo' introduces my students to suspense.

With 'Vertigo', we continue our discussion on the mise en scene and discuss the role it played in the evolution of cinema. I pair 'Vertigo' with 'Citizen Kane' since "Sight and Sound" magazine listed them as the two greatest films ever made.

5. Raging Bull (1980)

R | 129 min | Biography, Drama, Sport

89 Metascore

The life of boxer Jake LaMotta, as the violence and temper that leads him to the top in the ring destroys his life outside of it.

Director: Martin Scorsese | Stars: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci, Frank Vincent

Votes: 281,719 | Gross: $23.38M

'Raging Bull' begins our unit on cinematography, focusing on all of the different shot lengths and Scorsese's use of black and white photography.

6. Jules and Jim (1962)

Not Rated | 105 min | Drama, Romance

Decades of a love triangle concerning two friends and an impulsive woman.

Director: François Truffaut | Stars: Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner, Henri Serre, Vanna Urbino

Votes: 32,661

'Jules and Jim' continues our unit on cinematography by introducing students to the French New Wave and all of the various camera movements.

7. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

G | 149 min | Adventure, Sci-Fi

82 Metascore

After discovering a mysterious artifact buried beneath the lunar surface, mankind sets off on a quest to find its origins with help from intelligent supercomputer HAL 9000.

Director: Stanley Kubrick | Stars: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Daniel Richter

Votes: 528,341 | Gross: $56.95M

Like 'Kane', I could use '2001' for any of these units, but I use the film in our unit on editing to show examples of long takes, graphic match cuts and practical special effects.

8. Run Lola Run (1998)

R | 80 min | Crime, Drama, Thriller

77 Metascore

After a botched money delivery, Lola has 20 minutes to come up with 100,000 Deutschmarks.

Director: Tom Tykwer | Stars: Franka Potente, Moritz Bleibtreu, Herbert Knaup, Nina Petri

Votes: 177,188 | Gross: $7.27M

'Run Lola Run' continues our unit on editing, focusing on parallel editing, montage editing and the use of split screens.

9. Singin' in the Rain (1952)

G | 103 min | Comedy, Musical, Romance

99 Metascore

A silent film production company and cast make a difficult transition to sound.

Directors: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly | Stars: Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen

Votes: 191,213 | Gross: $8.82M

'Singin' in the Rain' introduces students to our unit on sound. In addition to it's wonderful music and sound, the film provides a great historical background to film's transition from silent films to talkies.

10. The Conversation (1974)

PG | 113 min | Drama, Mystery, Thriller

85 Metascore

A paranoid, secretive surveillance expert has a crisis of conscience when he suspects that a couple, on whom he is spying, will be murdered.

Director: Francis Ford Coppola | Stars: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Frederic Forrest

Votes: 85,847 | Gross: $4.42M

'The Conversation' continues our unit on sound, as we discuss the importance of sound effects and how sound can be used as a storytelling device.

11. Dont Look Back (1967)

Not Rated | 96 min | Documentary, Music

Documentary covering Bob Dylan's 1965 tour of England, which includes appearances by Joan Baez and Donovan.

Director: D.A. Pennebaker | Stars: Bob Dylan, Albert Grossman, Bob Neuwirth, Joan Baez

Votes: 7,363

'Don't Look Back' begins our unit on documentary films as I introduce students to the concept of direct cinema.

12. Hoop Dreams (1994)

PG-13 | 170 min | Documentary, Drama, Sport

98 Metascore

A film following the lives of two inner-city Chicago boys who struggle to become college basketball players on the road to going professional.

Director: Steve James | Stars: William Gates, Arthur Agee, Emma Gates, Curtis Gates

Votes: 21,921 | Gross: $7.83M

'Hoop Dreams' continues our unit on documentary films, discussing it's linear approach to storytelling and filmmakers roll in capturing their subject.

13. The Wrong Trousers (1993)

Not Rated | 30 min | Animation, Short, Comedy

Wallace takes in a new lodger, a devious penguin. Sporting some techno-trousers, the penguin plans a grand theft, a plan that involves putting Wallace in danger.

Director: Nick Park | Stars: Peter Sallis, Peter Hawkins

Votes: 46,465

'The Wrong Trousers' is a great 30-minute film for teaching stop-motion animation.

14. Spirited Away (2001)

PG | 125 min | Animation, Adventure, Family

96 Metascore

During her family's move to the suburbs, a sullen 10-year-old girl wanders into a world ruled by gods, witches, and spirits, and where humans are changed into beasts.

Directors: Hayao Miyazaki, Kirk Wise | Stars: Daveigh Chase, Suzanne Pleshette, Miyu Irino, Rumi Hiiragi

Votes: 539,870 | Gross: $10.06M

My students have been watching cartoons since birth, but very few have ever seen anything as breathtakingly beautiful as 'Spirited Away'. This is a great film for introducing students to our unit on animation.

15. Is Everybody Happy? (2010)

Not Rated | 89 min | Documentary, Biography, Comedy

'Is Everybody Happy?' is the heartbreaking true story of four friends, their band and the thirteen day tour that changed their lives forever. This film takes a look at the less glamorous ... See full summary »

Director: Timothy Marklevitz | Stars: Chris Andrus, Bradley Harris, Brad Lawrence, Steve Sullivan

Votes: 6

'Is Everybody Happy?' is my feature-length documentary about a struggling indie-rock band from Grand Rapids, MI. It might be rather self-aggrandizing of me to show my students a film directed by their teacher when there are so many other great examples. However, showing my film is an excellent way for them to ask questions and receive personal insight from the source. As much as I'd love to have Werner Herzog talk to my class about 'Grizzly Man', it's not going to happen. So, my students must settle for me.

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